In 1982, Bruce Springsteen released Nebraska. Harrowing and harmonica-driven, lonely and lovely, it’s an album that speaks to a loss of innocence, to a painful coming-of-age. Similar to Simon & Garfunkel’s anthem “America”, the songs that compose Nebraska tell the tales of a blighted Manifest Destiny, of uniquely evocative experiences spent combing the amber countryside for meaning.
This is where the Tympanic Theatre Company, based in Chicago, found inspiration. As founder (and CoS Senior Staff Writer) Dan Caffrey states: “A good story is a good story, and that’s why Nebraska still resonates with listeners.” Pairing 10 directors with 11 playwrights, Deliver Us From Nowhere is composed of ten different short plays each based on a song from the classic album. The results are experimental, dramatic, and beautifully interpretive. Just as each song has something to offer the listener, each play has something to offer the aesthete. Consequence of Sound spent some time with Caffrey discussing Deliver Us, and this is what the Creative Director had to say.
So why base the play on Springsteens Nebraska?
While Springsteen has a laundry list of great albums to choose from, the stories on Nebraska were the most in line with the stories we like to tell as a company; tales of desperate folks at odds with circumstances that are violent, overpowering, and macabre. Also, the sonic atmosphere is–for lack of a better word–spooky. And Tympanic loves spooky. It would’ve been weird for us to do a bunch of plays based on Tunnel of Love, although I do love that record as well.
Youve paired 11 playwrights with 10 directors who are some of the collaborators? How did they meet, and how did they draw inspiration from the music and from each other?
The collaborators are mix of different folks from the Chicago theatre scene and elsewhere. Some of them are from companies we’ve worked with in the past, while others are brand new to us. We have veterans as well as first-time playwrights and directors. Whenever we produce a project this big, it’s always important to us to get an eclectic mix of folks. We want them to bring their own creative stamp to the work. So some of the writer/director teams have worked together numerous times before and others didn’t meet each other until this project. Tympanic chose each pairing and based each decision on what would make for the most dynamic final product.
Would you say that the plays flow seamlessly, one story interwoven into another, or is each play trying to create its own distinct flavor?
Each play definitely tells its own distinct story that’s separate from all the others. However, because they’re all based on a song from the same body of work, similarities ended up occurring in the scripts. I like to think of them as happy accidents. For example, there are a lot of ghostly characters, a lot of cops, a lot of working class people. Out of all of Springsteen’s albums, Nebraska is the most cohesive. The songs are different but the mood is consistent. I hope this same aesthetic principle applies to the entire evening. Because of the similarities with some of the short plays, we’ve been able to stage some creative transitions between a few of them, showing how one work seamlessly moves to the next while the musicians play.
Is this play a comment on Americana? Thus, the choice of Springsteen as a representation of the American male voice, the rock star cowboy?
That’s a good question. While we never set out to accomplish anything distinctly political or American with Deliver Us, many of the stories certainly revolve around characters that are rooted in Americana, and I think that’s a direct result of drawing inspiration from Nebraska, which is hands down a true piece of Americana. The family members in Mary Laws’ “The Drive” (inspired by the song “Used Cars”) could easily be any of our own. We’ve all seen the southern cops in Joshua Mikel’s “Dead Dogs” (inspired by the song “Reason To Believe”), if not in our own lives, then definitely in other works of popular culture. No Country For Old Men comes to mind. A lot of the plays riff on familiar figures, whether they be real-life archetypes or cultural icons, which I guess can be one in the same.
Can you explain the meaning of art reflecting art?
It could mean a lot of things, but I’d like to think of it in more literal terms. I’m always interested in how someone can use an already existing piece of art as a foundation for their own work, then transform it into something completely new. With every play in Deliver Us, you can spot what the script takes from the song, but you can also see what the playwright invented from their own imagination. And Springsteen’s been doing the same sort of thing for years. ”Thunder Road” took inspiration and its title from the poster for the film of the same name. But it’s not a musical version of the movie, despite the similarities.
Then you have bands like The Gaslight Anthem, who, beyond citing Springsteen as an influence, take lyrical snippets of his (and other artists’) and insert them into their songs, all while filtering it through their own distinct sound–a sort of punked up and more aggressive Bruce. Then they do a concert together and it’s mind-blowing. Here’s a band who writes a song inspired by one of their favorite musicians, then they get to hear it sung in that same musician’s voice. I think that’s just great. Hopefully, Springsteen fans will watch the plays and say “hey, I know that character!” or “that line comes from my favorite lyric” while noticing fresh elements that come completely from the writer.
Who are the characters? Is it one transient character a Springsteen type appearing throughout each play? Does the whole piece have a sort of Springsteen vs. the world dynamic, or does each play incorporate its own unique dynamics and relationships?
While we have musicians scoring the whole thing, we don’t have any one character who pops up in all the plays. But there is a definite sense of one man or woman against the world with a lot of the pieces. On the same note, Springsteen himself never makes an appearance, but several of the characters embody his public image–the working class mentality and ruggedness of it. Although he’s technically not working class anymore (he’s been a millionaire for a while now), he still exudes a certain aesthetic and tries to represent a certain class of people with his music. I should also say that our wonderful costume designer turned to The Boss’ style for clothing inspiration. Keep a lookout for cowboy boots, tattered jeans, and red handkerchiefs!
Do you feel that as an album, Nebraska holds a lot of contemporary relevance? The sound (i.e. use of harmonica during Nebraska, Mansion on the Hill) is incorporated into todays music as well do you think thats why this was the most appealing Springsteen album to draw from?
It certainly does hold contemporary relevance. Nebraska was one of the first officially released lo-fi records, which is funny since Springsteen’s music up to that point was so huge and cinematic. Critics always talk about how Nebraska is his album that indie fans can appreciate. That sounds cliché, but the statement definitely holds some water. It inspired a lot of contemporary musicians. If you look at Bon Iver’s first album, it has that Nebraska quality to it–the sound of one guy holed up in a house to record something that’s stark and eerie.
From a lyrical standpoint, I think Nebraska endures because it’s strong storytelling. People make all these political connections to it, and those are definitely valid, but at the end of the day, a good story trumps all. There’s a reason why “We Are the World” is now viewed as being completely corny while “Mansion On the Hill” isn’t. Both songs touch on socioeconomic issues (not to mention they both feature Springsteen), but only one of them tells a story, and a compelling story at that. I mean, I guess it’s sort of an unfair comparison in many ways (“We Are the World” has awful keyboards), but you get the idea. A good story is a good story, and that’s why Nebraska still resonates with listeners, whether they’re looking for something that’s political or not.
Is this a play for music fans or theatre fans? Or both and in what ways?
Both, I hope! We’ll see once we open. I’m hoping theatre fans who aren’t familiar with Nebraska can simply enjoy the stories for what they are. I think that regardless of the Springsteen connection, we’ve crafted ten short plays that are each captivating on their own merit. The same goes for Springsteen fans. I hope they’re drawn in by the concept and enjoy the referential details, but that they also stay to see what happens next. If you’re both a theatergoer and a Springsteen fanatic, you’ve got it made.
Where did you get your unique idea to directly fuse music and theatre to create a more rounded experience i.e. as you did with the Cobain play? Do you feel youre telling stories that need to be told, essentially giving the visual element to the aural?
To be honest, it originally had less to do with concept and more to do with our company being made up of people who wholeheartedly love rock ‘n’ roll. Giving a visual element to the aural definitely came into play after we decided to do both projects, but what initially drew us to Verse Chorus Verse was that it contained subject matter we enjoyed and that it was good. We initially came up with Deliver Us because we just wanted to do a night of short plays based around an album. And that stemmed from a love of music coupled with the specific stories we wanted to tell. By the way, Deliver Us contains a short play written by Randall Colburn, who also wrote Verse Chorus Verse.
How directly interpretive are the plays of the music? Would you say your artists have done a good job of crafting symbolism and uniting the music and theatre mediums?
It varies from piece to piece, and I like that. Without giving too much away, “Man Will Meddle” (written by CoS’ very own Justin Gerber) takes direct inspiration from the title track in that it imagines what happened to the serial killer’s lover after he was electrocuted. The tie to the lyrics is pretty evident since it’s a sort of sequel to the song. “Resurrecting Beauty” is inspired by “Atlantic City,” but takes a more abstract approach. The writer, Adam Webster, took the song’s repeated chorus lyric–“maybe everything that dies someday comes back”–and went from there, using the play as a vehicle to explore dead lovers and romantic regrets. He also threw in some subtle imagery from the song, such as the dress the narrator tells his girlfriend to wear. The playwrights did a great job uniting the mediums and all took varying approaches. It was fascinating to see the results.
How directly involved are you with the production? Anything youve learned?
I’m pretty heavily involved. Our Literary Manager and I sought out playwrights and directors over a year ago and I wrote a short play inspired by “State Trooper” with my Dad, who used to be a New Jersey State Trooper. So that was cool. Beyond that, I served as Production Manager, so I was at the space for all of tech week and tried as best I could to coordinate everything. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve got, but I’ve definitely learned to maybe scale back my production duties for the future. I think because I love Springsteen and our company so much, I got excited at the combination and wanted to do too many things. Sorry, I know that sounds really pompous–“woe is me, I did so much” — but I think I’m definitely going to keep that in mind in the future in order to stay more sane and organized. There’s nearly 60 people involved with this sucker!
Does Springsteen know about this production?
I hope so! But probably not. We’ve gotten some great press from Forbes Magazine and Greasy Lake, which is one of the big Springsteen fan sites. I have no idea how much he reads either of those, but it would make my day if he found out about us.
Maybe we’ll get our own “Legends of Springsteen” moment and he’ll randomly show up to a performance, then do an unplugged set for three hours or something. But as I said, probably not.
Would you say this play is an homage to Springsteens career and achievements? Or, does it go back to art reflecting art, in that this play is a piece of art (theatre) directly inspired by Springsteens art (music)?
It’s definitely the latter. There are a lot of jukebox musicals out there that, quite frankly, tell a pretty thin story as an excuse to play an artist’s songs and/or explore a loose version of their career. With Deliver Us, we’re using an artist’s songs as a springboard for something that’s both new and pays homage to their great music. On top of that, we have live musicians (a different one every weekend), who have written their own music based on the plays. So you have music inspired by plays inspired by music. Definitely art reflecting art.
Tympanic prides itself on being innovative how is this play a groundbreaking union between music and theatre, and how would you like this model of “basing a unique play on each unique song of an album” to be reflected elsewhere? Any other albums you dream of doing this with?
At the end of the day, I, and the rest of the company, want to tell good stories. While I definitely think this is different from other nights of short theatre in concept alone, I’m not sure if any other companies will use this as a model for their own short play festivals. I just don’t think I’m smart enough to create a trend like that. However if they did, that would be insanely cool and flattering for Tympanic.
As far as other albums go, a ton of them come to mind. It would have to be something that fits Tympanic’s aesthetic, but has also stood the test of time. Something from Neil Young would be cool. His early work deals a lot with melding the future with the primordial–a sort of Neanderthal apocalypse. So a night of short plays inspired by After The Gold Rush or Rust Never Sleeps would be great. Other records: Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, anything by The Drive-By Truckers or The Decemberists. I had toyed around with producing a live musical of The Hazards of Love, but we’d run into a lot of issues with rights, since we’d have to use the actual music. It would also probably be expensive and I think a lot of people hate that album for some reason.
Tom Waits is always another go-to inspiration for theatre people because he’s so theatrical. I’d like to maybe do something based on Bone Machine or Mule Variations, but those both have 16 songs. That would be one long night of plays.